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Solar farm hearing ends in wee hours of morning, decision postponed

Planning board members look over revised landscaping plan

Planning board members look over revised landscaping plan

KEN H. FORTENBERRY

publisher@newsatnorman.com
  After nearly six hours of testimony that began Monday evening and ended early Tuesday morning, a decision on a plan to build a solar farm near an upscale Denver neighborhood was postponed by worn-out county officials for another week.
  As testimony in the public hearing concluded shortly before 1 a.m. Tuesday, planning board chair Christine Poinsette received permission from the county commission to postpone deliberations and a vote on the solar farm until next Monday. No more testimony will be allowed, although the public is invited to attend the 6:30 p.m. meeting at the Citizens Center in Lincolnton.
   After the planning board makes its recommendation, county commissioners will vote on whether the solar farm will be allowed, and if so, what conditions will be placed on it. That final could come the following Monday, Dec. 16.
   Hour-after-hour Monday night, witnesses for both sides of the issue presented their cases and answered questions that primarily centered on three issues: 1) whether the solar farm would negatively impact surrounding property values; 2) whether the farm would be in harmony with the area; and 3) whether the plan meets the requirements of the county’s planning and zoning laws.
  Most of the testimony was presented by solar farm opponents – many of whom live in SailView – who maintained that the farm will drive their property values down, a claim that the solar farm company challenged with several rebuttal witnesses.
  The public hearing began on a contentious note when an attorney for Strata Solar, the Chapel Hill company that wants to build the solar farm on Webb’s Road, said that the company had been unable to satisfy citizens’ concerns about its landscaping plan – a plan the company says is not even required under the county’s Unified Development Ordinance.
  “There wasn’t anything we could do that they would accept,” said Strata attorney Robert Burchette, who said the company met with residents in October and heard their concerns. He then presented a new landscaping plan, and asked that it be used as conditions for approval of the solar farm.
  Jim Scarborough, an attorney hired by farm opponents, objected to the plan and said that the first time he or anyone other than Strata had seen it was moments earlier. He said that after Strata met with opponents in October, the assumption was that Strata would get back to them with a revised plan.
  “We heard nothing,” he said. “This is wrong.”
  Scarborough objected to the plan being introduced. “I don’t think is should be tolerated,” he said.
  Former county commissioner George Arena, a SailView resident and leader of the solar farm opposition, also objected to the landscaping plan and said that Strata “did not give an inch” when it met with opponents, and he pleaded at the time for the company to “please get back to us.”
  “We heard absolutely nothing,” he said, adding that he was glad the company developed a new landscaping plan, but it shouldn’t have been presented at the last minute.
  “Are we playing secrets here?” he asked.
  Arena talked for about an hour, outlining the case against the solar farm and telling county leaders that residents are not against solar power, but don’t believe the farm should be located adjacent to a single-family community of upscale homes like SailView, which he pointed out contributes about 8 percent of the county’s entire tax base. Arena warned that if property values decline, the county’s tax revenues will also go down.
  Arena said the Strata plan for Denver is unique because it is the only solar plan he can find that is next to a residential community of about 800 homes and is split on two sides of a residential collector road. Arena citied examples of how solar farms in other areas have had a negative impact on property values and said there is no critical need for the solar farm – a for-profit company – to build in the community.
  He also criticized the county planning department and planning board for not developing regulations for solar farms and suggested that they have unnecessarily delayed action. Planners have been working on solar farm regulations for more than six months, he said, adding that it is obvious the county’s Unified Development Ordinance needs to be revised to specifically include solar farm regulations. Arena, who was instrumental as member of the planning board and county commission, in developing and adopting the UDO he criticized, also hinted that the county’s principal planner, Randy Williams, and Strata’s site development manager, Lance Williams, may have engaged in improper conduct, and noted that they are cousins.
  Arena then attacked county zoning administrator Randy Hawkins for his interpretation of road definitions and using state Department of Transportation definitions rather than the county’s UDO as a basis for making some decisions affecting the solar farm application.
  “That’s not good behavior,” he said. “That’s not good interpretation.”
  The next speaker for the opponents was Ted Campbell, a resident of Ashley Lane, an engineer, and a self-described “big fan” of solar energy.
   He had numerous objections to Strata’s plan and said that he has visited at least 20 solar farms and has never seen one in such a densely populated area as Webb’s Road. He also said the plan was missing “a lot of technical details,” and was incomplete.
  Jack Kiser, a planning consultant hired by opponents, testified that the solar farm would not be in harmony with the neighborhood because of its “size, prominence and visibility.
  He repeatedly referred to Webb’s Road as the “gateway” to many lake-area neighborhoods and said the solar farm would be “intrusive” because of what he called its “woefully deficient screening.”
  He said that 5,900 vehicles drive on Webb’s Road every day and people don’t want to see chain link and barbed wire fences along the “gateway.”
  One witness for the opponents said that her property already has been devalued by the solar farm.
  Martha McLean said that a house she owns on Burton Lane that is adjacent to the farm was under contract for sale, but the buyer backed out of the deal when he learned about the possibility of the solar farm.
  “They had to buy a home. They’re gone. It was a sad situation for both,” said Realtor Marty Wulfhorst who is listing the McLean property.
  Realtor Nadine Deason, who said she is one of the top real estate agents in the region, said that prospective buyers would be overwhelmed driving by an industrial facility to reach  a house for sale in the area.
  She said the solar farm would be “repulsive” to future buyers and sellers would be required to disclose the solar farm in real estate documents, a move she said would be a “terrible detriment” to the marketability of property.
  When asked by county commissioner Carl Robinson Jr. if disclosure is required for the septic tank company or the porta-john facility along Webbs Road, Deason said it was not.
  She quickly added, however, that the “eyesore” of a solar farm can’t be hidden.
  Realtor Jane Roddy, a SailView resident, ran into some tough questioning from planning board member Keith Johnson when she testified that home sales in SailView have declined since the solar farm was announced. Meanwhile, the Peninsula community on the other side of the lake, “can’t keep inventory. . . it is selling so fast,” she said.
  She said that when given a choice, home-buying clients are not going to live near a solar farm when they can choose to live some place that’s beautiful and not have to drive past chain-link fences to get home.
  Roddy presented information comparing sales in the Peninsula and in SailView, and Johnson tore into her analysis.
  “Sir, you’re going in a little too deep in this,” she responded to the applause and cheers of farm opponents.
  “The Realtors don’t even want to show in SailView,” she said.
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